Last month we celebrated my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. As the milestone approached, I kept thinking of Sharon Olds’s “I Go Back to May 1937,” and the words she uses to describe her parents on the brink of their marriage:
“…they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent…”From “I Go Back to May 1937“)
I tried to write about this, but it felt unkind to share that these are the words that came to me when I thought about my parents marrying. I worried how they might feel if they were to read my writing and see them. On the weekend we celebrated their anniversary, though, my mother made a joke about how she was sure no one thought their marriage would last.
“Really?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” she said. “We were so young and dumb.”
How could they have been anything else? They were only 19 and 22, for god’s sake! Before their second anniversary, we were a family of four, which means that I have memories of my parents in their 20s, 30s, 40s and all the decades that followed. It means that we were all very young together.
It’s a long story, the one of their marriage, our family.
Olds’s poem is harsh and bleak. For a time–back when my dad was still drinking, when my own life was unspooling–it was the kind of poem I might have written myself. I understood the desire of the poem’s speaker to go back and prevent a marriage that was an impetus of pain. I read her words and wondered if my parents, too, were the wrong people for each other, and if it would have been better for all of us if they hadn’t married. I wondered that even as I knew it would mean that I wouldn’t exist to wonder about anything.
Later, when we were all a bit older, a bit more developed–when my dad was sober and I’d managed to stitch together a healthier life–I no longer wished to spare us all by undoing their union. When I would look at their wedding photo I’d wish instead that I could wave some sort of magic wand and cast away the hard things we were all going to live through, keeping the good and tossing the bad. I’d keep the dad who did math problems at the kitchen table with me after dinner and came to every one of my track meets, but not his moods that could turn suddenly, frighteningly dark. I’d keep the brother I shot baskets with in the backyard, but lose his long-undiagnosed autism that no one understood or knew what to do about. I’d keep the kind, gentle mother who was my refuge, but also, somehow, let her have a larger life in which she could more fully be an artist or athlete or activist.
But that’s not how any life works, is it? That’s probably for the best, for who would my parents be, if I could possess such a wand, and who would my brother and I be, if we were not the people our fates have forged us into being? Who is to say that an alternate life would have been any kinder to us, that our sorrows would be lesser or our joys greater? After all, my parents are still here, together, by choice. Not habit nor dysfunction nor impossible-to-escape circumstances, but by deliberate choice.
When I was lost in the forest of my own marriage’s demise, I asked my mother why she’d stayed in hers.
“I always loved your dad,” she said. “Even at the worst times, I never wanted to be not married to him.”
What a great gift, to live your days with someone who has known and loved every adult iteration of yourself you’ve ever been and continues to willingly, purposefully choose you. It’s hard for me, who will never know that, to think of a better foundation for a good life.
I hesitate to let that last paragraph stand. To share any of this post, if I’m being honest. I have struggled to write it. I have struggled to find words that are neither sentimental nor simplistic, to convey truths more complicated than our usual narratives about long unions tend to be. I have struggled to find words that are both kind and true. Because the truth is: My childhood was hard. My parents suffered. My brother suffered. I suffered. My children have suffered as a result of the ways in which my suffering formed me. These words feel unkind, and how do I explain that even in the face of these truths, I wouldn’t go back and tell those young, dumb kids not to do it? It’s not just because, like Olds, I want to live. (Though I do. I want to live.) It’s because I want us to get to where we are now.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that all you need is love, or that eventual benefit outweighs earlier harm, or that our pain didn’t matter or wasn’t significant. It did, and it was. But our suffering is not the whole story, and while things that happened cannot change over time, our stories, like people, can. I want to get to the story I know now.
When I look at my parents’ wedding day photo today, I still see two innocent kids who were far too young for marriage–especially the one they were going to have. But I also see in their faces, on what my dad recently told me was the best day of his life, a story about the kind of bright hope we all have when we are making our first important choices, and what I feel most for those kids now is tenderness–tenderness and the kind of protectiveness I feel for my own children, who are already older than my parents were when I was born. I look at that photo and I want my dad to have that day. I want my mom to smile that brilliant smile. I want these things because every life has its moments of tragedy and sorrow, no matter how carefully or prudently it is lived, and no matter what things did or didn’t happen afterward, their joy on that day was pure and true. I want that kind of joy to have happened, to have existed in our broken world. I want that joy to be what it has been, the seed of so many others we have all experienced throughout our lives. I want it for them, and for my children, and for myself.
When I look at that photo and then ahead to my childhood that will follow it, what I see now is how young and tender and gorgeous we all were, together, and, often, how dumb. How we were everything all at once, and still are.
I couldn’t see that when we were in the thick of it. I couldn’t see how much we all, more often than we got it, needed some grace and a hug. Of course my parents did damage; how could they not, damaged as they were by their own parents, who were in turn damaged by theirs, and all of them damaged by living in world of damaged and damaging people? Don’t all parents do harm, no matter how old we are when we make a family, no matter how much we are determined not to? Don’t we all struggle, doesn’t life throw hardballs at all of our heads? I tried to tell myself once, when I was a teenager, that they didn’t really love me, but it was no good. I knew that they did. I knew they always had and always would. And I know fully now what some part of me grasped only a little at 14: They always did the best they could with what they had, and that counts for more than a person might think. What I also know now that I didn’t then is that not all parents do these things–love unconditionally, do the best they can. I know that, in some ways, despite the ways in which fate was unkind to our young family, I have been all kinds of lucky.
Now, when I go back to February 1963, I see them the night before their wedding, she in impossibly tiny capri pants, he in a button-down shirt and chinos. He is lying on his back, legs raised to the ceiling, with her girlish body balanced atop his feet. She’s facing him, their hands clasped, and she smiles down at him, looking, perhaps, like she knows a secret. They are playing like the kids they are. They are young and dumb and all they know is that they are in love. In a few short years, when he plays this game of airplane with his daughter, she will fear falling but will also willingly choose the rush of flight, begging “do it again!” each time he lands her safely on the ground. This will not be a metaphor for her life with them. It will be only one kind of memory out of multitudes. She cannot have the one without all the others, which is why, when that girl grows up and is getting old herself, she will write her way to a place where she imagines going back in time and saying to them:
Yes, go ahead, do it again. Do what you are going to do. Fly.